Imagine you show up at a new restaurant after a long day at work. You’re tired, hungry, and ready to unwind.

After being seated at your table, a few minutes go by and your waiter has yet to show up. You start to get a little antsy, but the place is busy and it’s a new restaurant, so you remain patient.

But then 10 more minutes go by and still no waiter.

You’re starting to get frustrated. Finally, the waiter approaches your table, apologizes for the wait, and takes your drink order. Because you’ve had time to look over the menu, you figure you’ll get some of the time back by ordering your meal too.

The food comes out quickly, but they got your order wrong. 

Can you imagine how disappointed and frustrated you’d be? You might even be ready to ask for your money back. Or maybe you’re already pulling out your phone to leave a negative review on Yelp or Google.

So what does this have to do with healthcare? Just like you entered the restaurant with certain expectations, patients enter hospitals with their own set of expectations. If, for whatever reason, those go unmet, or they aren’t properly set up, it makes it challenging to provide a great experience.

To avoid that situation, hospital employees must effectively communicate with the patient as well as with other staff members.

But what is effective communication? And what exactly is its impact on your hospital’s operations? This article will answer both those questions and conclude with some simple first steps for improving the communication at your facility.

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Defining Effective Communication in Healthcare
doctor with patient

Communication is effective when both the sender and receiver reach a clear and mutual understanding of the information being exchanged.

To achieve this, the message needs to be thoughtfully delivered and packaged. If it’s verbal communication, your tone and body language can either muddy up the information or enhance its clarity. If it’s written, the format of the document and the consistency in style can have the same effect.

In other words, more than just the message itself needs to be taken into consideration. 

As patients or loved ones are emotionally processing a stressful time, it can make it more difficult for them to also process important information about treatment and medication. If healthcare providers don’t take these things into account, communication starts to break down and the quality of care plummets.

3 Areas Communication Impacts

Communication affects nearly every aspect of a facility’s operations. Rather than trying to tackle all of them, this article will focus on three of the most important ones.

• Readmission rates

• Patient experience

• Work culture

Readmission rates

Under the Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program (HRRP) — developed by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) — over 2500 hospitals face readmission penalties in 2020.

While there is some debate about the effectiveness of that program, it’s clear that many hospitals struggle to keep readmissions down. One of the culprits is ineffective care transitions. A care transition refers to the movement of patients between healthcare practitioners, settings, and the home. According to the Joint Commission, two of the top reasons for ineffective care transitions are communication breakdowns and patient education breakdowns.

Communication breakdowns stem from differing expectations among the parties involved in the transition, a lack of standardized procedures, and inadequate time provided for a successful hand-off. These emphasize the importance of effective communication between healthcare workers.

But there are also breakdowns between providers and patients. Here’s how the Joint Commission detailed patient education breakdowns:

“Patients or family/friend caregivers sometimes receive conflicting recommendations, confusing medication regimens, and unclear instructions about follow-up care. Patients and caregivers are sometimes excluded from the planning related to the transition process. Patients may lack a sufficient understanding of the medical condition or the plan of care. As a result, they do not buy into the importance of following the care plan, or lack the knowledge or skills to do so.”

This produces high readmission rates, which cause a frustrating patient experience and, for those 2500+ hospitals mentioned previously, a financial penalty.

The patient experience

From the patient’s first interaction with a receptionist to the time they receive a medical bill, communication shapes their entire experience. At each step of the way, there’s an opportunity to reduce the amount of friction a patient feels and provide more thoughtful care.

The receptionist can set proper expectations for wait time, the nurse can ask thorough questions that help the doctor make an accurate diagnosis, and the doctor can provide clear instructions about treatment and what’s needed for a full recovery.

It’s easy, from the provider’s perspective, to think of this as a high-functioning system that pumps patients in and out. But at each step, the patient might be experiencing fear, anxiety, or confusion. As they process those emotions, it becomes harder for them to process important information about medication, treatment, and recovery.

Effective communication builds trust between the patient and the provider. Trust can combat negative emotions and make it easier for the patient to reach a clear understanding of whatever information is being relayed.

Work culture

Culture is a buzz word, but there’s a reason it’s so widely discussed. Merriam-Webster defines it as “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization.”

If you don’t establish this, the individuals and departments that make up an organization start to work against rather than alongside each other.

To build a positive culture where employees understand and share the values of their organization, you have to establish clear and effective channels of communication. A good place to start is having cross-departmental meetings where the leaders of each department can share their goals and the obstacles they’re facing. This can help break down silos and reveal how departments can help each other overcome the challenges they’re facing.

If effective communication means reaching a clear and mutual understanding of a message being exchanged, you need to make space for that to happen.

Conclusion

The moment a patient steps into your facility, communication forms every part of their experience with you. The signs directing them where to go, the initial interaction with a receptionist, the conversations with their nurses and doctors, and the documents they receive detailing their diagnosis and recommended treatment — it’s all driven by communication.

If you want to reduce readmission rates, improve the patient experience, and help improve the culture among your staff, start looking for places where communication can be improved.

Consider conducting patient rounds to get real-time feedback from patients. Or sit down with your departmental leaders and ask them what their goals and challenges are. Then ask them to explain what another department does and how they fit into the hospital’s operations. You can compare answers and see where the biggest gaps are between your teams.

Finding out where your breakdowns in communication are will give you insight into where you need to invest in improving communication.

For more information on breaking down departmental silos and establishing a healthy work culture, you can read about how Willie Nash, an EVS director in Colorado, approaches building a healthy relationship with nursing to deliver excellent patient care.

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